Islam: Letter to a Muslim Friend

I understand that Islam has as many branches and sects as Christianity. The two major ones are the Sunnis and the Shias. They split over the issue of apostolic succession. When Islam’s founder Muhammad died unexpectedly in A.D. 632, he had made no arrangements for a successor. His followers divided into two camps. The Sunnis were those who thought the leader should be elected democratically from among his closest followers, and the Shias were those who thought the leaders should be related to Muhammad. Perhaps 85 to 90 percent of all Muslims would call themselves Sunnis.

My recollection from our conversation is that you are a Sunni. The word “sunni” comes from the Arabic Sunnah, which simply means “the trodden path,” or “tradition.” In the Islamic context, it means someone who follows the exemplary pattern of conduct established by Muhammad, believed to be the model for all humankind. Since Muhammad was just one solitary man, confined to a slice of time in seventh century Arabia, he could not foresee the problems Islam would face in its rapid expansion into other lands. His followers —— who were imbued with Muhammad’s passion for law —— had to devise new laws based on their understanding of what Muhammad would have done, if he had remained among them. This process took almost 200 years and resulted in the formation of Islamic or Shariah Law. A Sunni, then, is a person who believes that the true way of life is to attempt to keep the laws of Islam (Shariah) derived from the Quran and the other collected sayings of Muhammad. For this person, paradise is the reward of those whose good deeds outweigh their bad on the day of judgment. I believe that this is in keeping with what you explained to me.

Muhammad, in his determination to discover and execute the will of God, set in motion a movement that resulted in the proliferation of laws attempting to cover every facet of life.

This idea–that God will weigh our good deeds against our bad deeds in a balance on the day of judgment–is as ancient as Egyptian culture and is shared with minor variations by many, including those holding to Judaism and many who fill the pews of churches throughout America.

But can the law save, or does it simply condemn? You and I discussed, for example, the elderly speeder. While we admire his good driving record, ultimately that record does nothing to erase the infraction that brings him before the court. So, too, I commend your zeal to keep the law of God as you understand it; however, I ask again: Doesn’t that very law ultimately condemn both of us?

One of the Christian apostles, Paul, wrote: “the letter [law] kills, but the Spirit gives life” (1 Cor. 3:6). Before Christ appeared to him, he had persecuted Christians as a blasphemous Jewish sect that did not hold to Judaism’s teaching that one must completely obey the written and oral laws and teachings of Moses.

Is 51 percent performance good enough to obtain salvation? We both know that Allah is holy. How could we conceive of offering to a holy God a glass filled with anything other than 100 percent perfection–a commodity that we simply do not have? The pollution of violating one of the least of the laws pollutes the entire body.

The Christian writer James wrote: “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (James 2:10). To this we could add Paul’s words in Romans 3:20: “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather through the law we become conscious of sin,” and in Galatians 3:24: “The law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith” (Gal. 3:24). In Quran 7:158, Muhammad asked people to follow him. Elsewhere in the Quran, Muhammad testified that Jesus was among those nearest to God, held in honor in this world and the hereafter (Quran 3:45). It is my understanding that Muslims believe this to mean that Jesus was sinless and all-righteous, qualities that the early Muslims never claimed for Muhammad. In fact, in several Quranic passages (16:61; 40:55; 42:5, 30; 47:19; 48:1-2), we read that Muhammad was exhorted to seek forgiveness for his faults; that not a single living creature would be left on earth if God punished everyone for their wrongdoing; and that one of Muhammad’s military victories served as an assurance of forgiveness of his sins, past and future.

Did you visit Muhammad’s grave in Medina? Where does the Quran teach that Jesus’ grave is located? Doesn’t it teach that Jesus Christ is alive in Heaven with God? In the Quran (2:253; 3:45-49; 4:158-176, 5:46-48; 19:33; 89:22-30), Jesus was called the Messiah; He was born of a virgin; He was among the righteous ones —— those nearest to God; He received strength from the Holy Spirit; He could give sight to the blind, cure lepers, and raise the dead; He prophesied His own death and resurrection; He was called a Word from God and a Spirit from God; and finally, He is coming back with thousands of angels to judge the world. All these characterizations add up to a powerful picture of a Christ who was more than a prophet —— and that’s on Quranic terms alone. In John 1:1-14, Jesus is portrayed as the eternal Word of God. According to the Scriptures, God’s purpose for Jesus becoming a man was that Jesus carry out God’s will in saving lost humankind, which could not be saved by the law, either Islamic or Mosaic.

The Quran bears surprising witness to Jesus. It affirms His virgin birth; His ability to heal and raise the dead; that He is both a word from God and a spirit from God; that He is the Messiah; that He is an all-righteous one (sinless) and among those nearest to God; that He is alive in Heaven now; and that He will return to judge the earth (Quran 3:45, 49; 4:158; 89:22). In a careful reading of Quranic references (3:83-84; 5:46-47; 10:37, 64, 94; 46:12), it appears that Muhammad affirmed his belief in what was revealed to Moses and Jesus. He taught that God confirms and guards all previous Scripture; that Christians are to stand fast on their own books of the Law and the Gospel; and that none can change the Word of God.

Finally, the Muslim is told that if he has doubts, he should ask the Jews and Christians, who were reading the Holy Books before he was. We discussed the issue of the nature of God. God is one. Could it be that within that inseparable one, distinct aspects of God appear in ways that are inconceivable to us–for as God is far greater than us, we cannot fully understand His nature.

As for the Shias, they felt the leader should come from Muhammad’s family, while the Sunnis thought he should be someone of noted piety elected by and from Muhammad’s closest companions. The Sunnis won with the first three successors; then the Shias, or party of Ali, assumed the leadership. But Ali was martyred, as were his only two sons. Throughout the centuries, the Shias usually lost out in these power struggles. This led to their taking on the nature of a protest movement against the corrupt Sunni leaders. Inevitably, to justify their separate minority identity, they developed theological doctrines that radically differed from those of the Sunnis on at least two major points: the idea of martyrdom and the idea of divine light indwelling their leaders.

Martyrdom for the cause of the people is memorialized in the Shia calendar year during their lunar month of Muharram. Of the three martyrs mentioned above —— Ali (Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law) and Ali’s two sons, Hasan and Husayn (Muhammad’s grandsons) —— that of Husayn is celebrated annually. The first 10 days of the month of Muharram are dedicated to “passion plays” that retell the story of Husayn’s betrayal and courageous stand, facing overwhelming odds, against the ruling house of Mecca (the Umayyids). On the tenth day, it is common for parades of self-flagellating men to beat themselves until the blood flows, lamenting the failure of the people to come to the defense of their beloved leader. Shias believe that the shed blood of their slain leader atones for their sins.

Shias believe that there was “divine light” indwelling Muhammad, Ali, Husayn, the early “Imams,” and currently, the present leading Ayatullah, whoever that may be. (In Sunni Islam, an Imam is a leader of the prayers at the mosque. It could be anyone. In Shia Islam, the Imam is a big word. It refers to the succession of the spiritual leaders of the community.) Depending on which branch of Shia Islam one is talking about, that line of succession terminated with the disappearance of either the fifth, the seventh, or the twelfth Imam. These lines came to an end centuries ago. Each was indwelt by divine light. This light was then passed on to a lesser order of clerics called “Ayatullahs.” This word means “Sign or Miracle of God.” (e.g., the late Ayatullah Khomeini). It was Jesus who first said, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). Behind this is the idea of pure light coming through a sinless servant of God. It seems that the problem for Shias is that they are forced by their own set of assumptions to attribute sinlessness to their present-day Ayatullahs. But not even Muhammad claimed this attribute for himself. The Quran exhorts Muhammad (and others, too) to seek forgiveness of his sins (Q. 40:53-55; 42:5; 47:19). The universality of sin is mentioned in Quran 16:61. The Quran also says that whatever misfortune happens to a Muslim happens because of his sin (Q. 42:30). It further says that even when victory comes, it occurs so that God may forgive one’s sins (Q. 48:1, 2). From these verses, we see that no one but God alone is sinless or capable of being the “Light of the World.”

An exception taught by the Quran is Jesus. In the Quran, we read that he is “among the righteous ones,” that is, He is sinless (Q. 3:46). Could it be that Jesus is “the holy Son of God” (Matt. 1:20, 21; Luke 1:32); that He was indeed sinless (2 Cor. 5:21); that in Jesus is true spiritual life and this life is the true light of men (John 1:4); and, finally, that Jesus Himself claimed to be the Light of the world (John 8:12) and it is in His light that we see light (John 1:9)?